Insight 5: Learn, reflect, experiment

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We must learn, reflect and experiment to put society back into sustainability

We need new ways for society to engage with sustainability. For these to thrive we have to help them grow and travel into new contexts.

We will have to learn better from experience and to think in different and new ways.

To get to where we want to go, we need to experiment with forms of societal engagement that are more critical and reflective.

We need to grow positive examples

At the grassroots, innovative activities for sustainable development already exist. Policy and decision-makers need to recognise this. Even if grassroots innovators alone can’t drive sustainable development, their innovations often turn out to be ‘seeds for change’.

3S says we need deep, radical and long-term changes. Policy to promote sustainable innovation must consider how grassroots innovations can be supported in, and between, communities. We have to develop connections between different governance settings and networks. Systems for governing innovation and sustainability need to become more adaptive, responsive and open to distributed forms of governing

We need better ways of learning

Standardised best practices won’t work if we disregard the particular contexts of their use. What works somewhere, at a particular time, may well not in others. Learning to improve existing systems and scaling-up best practice only gets you so far.

The creation of organisations of participation such as the Rathenau Institute (the Netherlands) or Sciencewise (UK) has improved participatory practice, for example around planning decisions related to HS2 or fracking. Much hope has been placed in the potential of organisations of participation to make policies more socially accountable and robust. But impacts on decision making have not been as great as expected.

3S research shows these organisations develop and learn mainly instrumentally, taking on narrow policy understandings of the relevant issue and sticking to pre-defined models of good engagement. Instead we must take advantage of instances of more transformative learning in and beyond these organisations and reflect on what has encouraged and enabled these transformations.

Learning is a multi-faceted, multi-directional and experimental process. We need critical and reflexive forms of learning which interrogate and reflect on values and practices, but these forms are rare.

Everyone involved in sustainable innovation has to get much better at reflecting on their own assumptions and those of others – about what we value, know, and do and our desired version of the future.

With that in mind, 3S develops collective and experimental approaches to sustainable innovation and forms of social engagement, Experiments are not just carried out in laboratories, living together is an experiment too!

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